Unleashing the power of the Colombian peatlands

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3 April 2023
David Cárdenas

Peatlands are a wetland ecosystem crucial in mitigating climate change and providing essential ecosystem services. However, in Colombia, peatlands are largely unknown and understudied despite covering significant areas of the country.

Colombia is not only one of the world’s most biodiverse countries but also among the most vulnerable to extreme weather events resulting from climate change. Colombia is often referred to as a country of Paramos. Paramos are high-altitude tropical zones found in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and northern Peru, typically located between 3000 and 5000 meters above sea level. They are cold and wet and receive a lot of sunlight. Due to the consistent climate, there is year-round plant growth and the soils are constantly saturated. The Paramo ecosystem spans about 35,000 square kilometers across Central and South America.

The Páramo is a unique ecosystem found at high altitudes, covering about 2.5 million hectares or 10% of Colombia’s land area. It’s mainly made up of grasses, shrubs, and small trees that have adapted to the harsh environment, which includes low temperatures and high winds. The Paramo plays an important ecological role in regulating water supplies for downstream communities and cities, including Bogotá. Additionally, it supports local communities by providing essential ecosystem services, such as regulating water flow, storing carbon, and preserving biodiversity.

Unfortunately, the Paramo ecosystem is currently facing various threats from human activities. Losing Paramo would have severe consequences for both the environment and local communities. The expansion of agriculture and livestock farming into Paramo areas has led to soil degradation and erosion, as well as the introduction of invasive species that outcompete native vegetation. Mining activities have also caused significant damage to Paramo ecosystems by altering the natural terrain and polluting waterways.

The Páramo and I

I was born in Fresno, Tolima, a small town in central Colombia that is surrounded by two rivers, the Guarino and the Gauli. These rivers are very important, as they originate in the Paramo ecosystem. Even though I relied on the Paramo for my drinking water, I didn’t feel a connection to it until I met Professor Juan Carlos Benavides, while studying at Pontifical Javeriana University.

Thanks to Professor Benavides, I had the opportunity to visit Paramo for the first time, and it was a breathtaking experience. Since that day, I’ve wanted to keep visiting this beautiful ecosystem. Every time I go, I feel like it’s my first time all over again. The Paramo holds a special place in my heart, and I’ve come to appreciate its importance as a source of life-sustaining resources for both humans and the environment.

From 2016 to 2021, I worked on a project as a research assistant and coordinator with my university and the Colombian Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies (IDEAM). The project focused on understanding how the paramo ecosystem stores carbon and releases methane, and I learned a lot about these topics during my time on the project. Over the past few years, I have been fully invested in studying the project’s main themes.

The Andes region, with its unique climate, geography, and topography, creates ideal conditions for the formation of many peatlands, locally known as “turberas” or “bofedales. Peatlands are crucial because they store large amounts of carbon in their soil, which helps to mitigate the effects of climate change by reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Peatlands are estimated to store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests combined. Additionally, peatlands provide a habitat for a variety of unique plants and animals, and they also play a crucial role in regulating water supplies and preventing floods.

Peatlands are not only important for their role in the environment but also for the benefits they provide to nearby communities and cities. They regulate water flow and provide grazing areas. Unfortunately, the introduction of grazing animals and agricultural practices over the past 200 years has led to changes in the paramo’s vegetation, including fragmentation and loss of certain plant species and degradation of peatlands.

However, in Colombia, peatlands are largely unknown and understudied. Despite covering significant areas of the country, the importance and potential of these ecosystems remain unrecognized, and they are often considered wasteland or unproductive areas. The lack of knowledge and understanding of the ecological, social, and economic values of peatlands in Colombia poses a significant challenge to their conservation and sustainable use. Therefore, there is an urgent need to raise awareness about the importance of peatlands and their role in mitigating climate change and providing essential ecosystem services.

Grazing by cattle is causing a lot of damage to the peatlands in the Andes. The cattle are trampling on the land, eating the vegetation, and changing the way nutrients move through the ecosystem. In the 1950s, more people started living in the area and growing potatoes, which led to them draining the peatlands to get water for irrigation.

Unfortunately, when the peatlands dry out, the organic material in the soil begins to break down and release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. One of these gases is methane, which is particularly harmful because it has a much stronger warming effect than carbon dioxide.

Peatlands for the future

Turberas para el futuro, is a high mountain peatland restoration project focused on peatland re-humidification, which is the process of restoring water levels in degraded peatlands to their natural state. This can be achieved through various methods, such as blocking drainage channels, building dams, and rewetting the land. Restoring water levels helps reduce the rate of decomposition of the organic soil, which in turn reduces greenhouse gas emissions and promotes the growth of peat-forming vegetation. Other benefits include improving water quality, increasing biodiversity, and promoting the regeneration of degraded peatland ecosystems. 

Peatlands are vital ecosystems that play a crucial role in mitigating climate change. These wetlands are highly efficient carbon sinks, capable of storing vast amounts of carbon and methane. The unique properties of peat make it an excellent natural filter, allowing peatlands to act as a powerful carbon and methane sink. As we work to address the pressing issue of climate change, protecting and restoring peatlands is a critical part of our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensure a sustainable future for our planet.

The goal of this project is to restore three hectares of high mountain peatlands through re-humidification, design cattle grazing management strategies, and assess how carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) fluxes varied before and after peatland re-humidification. We will adopt strategies such as ditch restoration, community sensibilization, and cattle grazing management.

Peatlands for the Future” is a project led by the Andean Corporation for Integral and Sustainable Development (COANDIS) and The Ecosystem Carbon Conservation (TECC).

David Cárdenas

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Supporting partners 2023

Supporting partners

The Restoration Stewards program provides funding, mentorship and training to deepen the impact of youth-led restoration projects. The year-long program is run by the Youth in Landscapes Initiative (YIL) and the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) under the banner of Generation Restoration to support and highlight the work of eight young restoration practitioners and their teams in 2023.

During the program, the Restoration Stewards and their teams are  supported to further develop their project and serve as ambassadors at both global and local levels. Globally, the Restoration Stewards share their journeys in a series of vlogs and blogs documenting their stories of inspiration and challenges and participate in different international events to showcase their work. Locally, they are sparking a restoration movement, mobilizing local communities and creating pathways to connect, share, learn, and act for livelihoods and landscapes.